According to wiktionary:

Sinologists distinguish between the language as used in antiquity (Classical Chinese), and the language used after the fall of the Han Dynasty (Literary Chinese), similar to the distinction between Classical Latin and Late Latin. In casual usage, these may be conflated. This should not be confused with the literary register of Modern Chinese, meaning “modern Chinese words that are only used in writing”, or with archaic terms in Modern Chinese. (In the Pinyin Chinese-English dictionary, these usages notes are indicated by <书> and <旧>, respectively.)

For example: In 我係中國人, 係 is literary and I see Hong konger write this context in social media. When to use literary chinese in modern day?

  • This is a question with the very peculiar quality that the person who asked it is likely to understand the answers to precisely the extent that they understood the situation they were asking about. Sep 9, 2021 at 11:34

2 Answers 2


Hong Kongers use 係 because that's Cantonese for 是. They are not using literary Chinese. They don't feel like they are using some archaic or more educated form. 係 is the most common form in today's Cantonese. For non-Cantonese people, that could be literary, though.

For literary Chinese if you mean the language used after the fall of the Han Dynasty (文言文), it is not normally used in the modern day. Some residues are still present as words, such as chengyu.

  • I mean literary register in dictionary. Sep 6, 2021 at 14:54
  • mdbg.net/chinese/… Here is the source in which 係 is literary. Sep 6, 2021 at 14:58
  • 1
    well, “係” as “是”, is used in literary chinese,; this usage is a few hundred years old. 🙀 Sep 6, 2021 at 14:59
  • Southern "dialects" retain a lot of the older, literary Chinese.
    – monalisa
    Sep 6, 2021 at 18:28
  • @IEatMyPizza Then you should state that clearly in your question.
    – Betty
    Sep 7, 2021 at 1:45

Sinologists distinguish between the language as used in antiquity (Classical Chinese), and the language used after the fall of the Han Dynasty (Literary Chinese)

well, this description is slightly, . . . imprecise.

in joseph needlam’s book “science and civilization in china” volume vii, page 48:

enter image description here

When to use literary chinese in modern day?

depends on what do you mean “use” (reading, writing, or?)

the culture, history, nearly everything about chinese, before 1911, is recorded in literary chinese. so, to learn, comprehend these aspects, one must know how to read the texts in classical / literary chinese.

for writing, not many people can write literary chinese fluently nowadays, but, they tried hard. a recent example is, on 18 march 2020, an article “大流行緣起武漢” co-written by microbiologist yuen kwok-young, started in literary chinese; though not good, it’s impressive 😸

title & the first paragraph of the text:

大流行緣起武漢 十七年教訓盡忘


full text is here

another usage is: terms used in correspondence (尺牘用語), these openings, endings, and greetings are strictly in literary chinese. again, not many can quote the terms correctly; those who can, would be treated as “high literacy”

about the character “係” (u+4fc2):

“係” used as “是”, this usage is quite old. i would say, the cantonese language preserved such usage, while others lost it.

in 平定準噶爾方略, it’s full of “係” used as “是”, such as:


enter image description here

  • 18 march 2010??? Sure?
    – joehua
    Sep 7, 2021 at 0:49
  • sorry, it’s typo 😿 answer edited now. thanks a lot 😸 Sep 7, 2021 at 12:51

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